Five years of debate over the Town of Oro Valley’s golf courses may soon come to a conclusion, as the seven-member town council narrowed their options during last Wednesday’s meeting.
The previous council had voted to purchase 45 holes of golf and a community center from nearby resort owner HSL Properties in December 2014. The current mayor and council were all elected after the purchase was made, but have deep disagreements over the courses’ future.
The options laid out by town staff are to keep the current 36 holes, change to a 27- or 18-hole configuration, or completely close the courses and convert the property to natural desert open space or a public park. The nine holes at Pusch Ridge will likely be leased back to HSL Properties to operate as part of the El Conquistador resort.
For the last nine months, newly elected Mayor Joe Winfield, Vice Mayor Melanie Barrett and council members Josh Nicolson and Joyce Jones-Ivey have expressed doubt over the courses’ financial viability.
But at last week’s meeting, Winfield decided to remove the 27-hole and “no golf” options from further consideration, citing the 18 and 36 holes as the best two choices. He indicated that if the 18-hole option were chosen, the Cañada course is the likely pick to become a linear park, because of its “proximity to current municipal infrastructure” and, unlike the Conquistador course, the town doesn’t own that land and must comply with certain deed restrictions.
“After listening to all of you for the last several months, I have come to the conclusion that some golf is an important part of our community and that having some golf is a good part of our recreation portfolio,” Barrett said in support of the mayor’s comments.
She leans more toward the 18-hole option, but Barrett said she is “open-minded” about 36 holes. She wants further discussion about integrating daily fee play on the members-only course. Currently, member-preferred tee times alternate daily between the Cañada and Conquistador courses, while the public is allowed to book tee times on the member side five days in advance.
In anticipation of the meeting, Town Manager Mary Jacobs and staff prepared an outline of estimated cost recovery for the different golf options.
In the first year after necessary capital improvements on the courses and the community center are completed, town staff predict a 74 percent cost recovery for the 36-hole configuration. The 18-hole option is predicted to have a 68 percent cost recovery. It would require an additional $170,000 to bring that figure up to 75 percent.
“This pyramid outlines a higher level of subsidy for those recreational amenities that are more accessible to the public,” Jacobs told the council. “The more accessible they are, the higher the subsidy. The more individualized they are, the greater the individual pays for the actual cost of service.”
In order to feel comfortable voting in favor of the 36-hole option, Winfield said he would like to see a 5 percent reduction in Troon’s operating expenses, the property operated as a municipal golf course with full public access and the annual tax subsidy not to exceed $750,000, after the planned capital improvements are completed.
Winfield named this figure following the town’s Budget and Finance Commission recommendation that the council identify an appropriate amount of government subsidy to the golf courses.
“It came from reviewing the financials on other golf courses, primarily the golf courses operated by the City of Tucson,” he said.
If the town were to exceed $750,000 for two consecutive years, Winfield said the council should be required to pivot to “Plan B”—the 18-hole configuration.
Council member Steve Solomon quickly said it was impossible for the town to comply with those conditions, and the two-year requirement would only further uncertainty about golf into the future. Winfield indicated he was in favor of Jacobs’ recommendation to close the Overlook restaurant and instead operate a “coffee and sandwich shop” on the first level. This change would ideally free up $100,000 the town currently pays each year to support it.
At the request of Winfield and Barrett, councilmember Bill Rodman withdrew a motion to have staff resume negotiations with HSL Properties about a lease for the nine holes at Pusch Ridge. The two said they would prefer to talk about a potential contract in executive session before voting.
“I’ve had brief conversations keeping HSL generally involved in where things were in the process and there certainly is still interest in continuing to work with the town on the possibility of a lease,” Jacobs told the council.
Still on the table is Cañada Hills Community Association’s offer to subsidize the two 18-hole courses with $100,000 in annual HOA dues. Winfield said he has reservations about such an agreement, citing a lack of precedent.
“We have a number of amenities around the community, we don’t have neighborhoods pay for a multi-use path that just happens to be near their house,” he said. “I suggest [the HOAs] think about targeting that revenue toward youth or other [golf] incentive programs.”
But council member Rhonda Piña said the HOA subsidy could get the town closer to meeting the mayor’s $750,000 subsidy requirement.
“If the HOA is willing to put in some funds, right here right now, that margin now goes from $999,000 to $899,000 to almost $799,000,” she said. “Now we’re talking about a $50,000 difference.”
After Rodman, Solomon and Piña questioned the mayor’s rationale for creating a list of conditions to be met before he gives his approval of 36 holes, Barrett asked if compromise was a possibility on the dais.
“I want to ask my fellow council members if they are interested in a compromise on this issue, or if their only concern is to try and have the 36 holes as is, no matter what,” she said.
Rodman said the minority of council voted in favor of the 36-hole option a year ago, before the new majority took office, and that their opinions have not changed since. Solomon said he wasn’t willing to “compromise away what’s best for the community.”
After nearly four hours of heated debate, the council voted 4-3 against approving the original 36-hole option, with Winfield, Barrett, Nicolson and Jones-Ivey voting against it.
But they also voted 6-1 in favor of directing town staff to analyze the mayor’s conditions and provide more detailed information on what the town would need to do to meet that criteria. Solomon was the sole “no” vote.
“The intent of this was simply to provide a pathway to try to reach some agreement,” Winfield said. “I wouldn’t have voted two years ago for the 36-hole option based on the circumstances. I’m trying to come to a place where I can vote in the affirmative.”
The results of that analysis are expected to be presented and discussed during the Oct. 2 council meeting.